Steel Notes Magazine Spring 2017 - Page 84

Steel Notes Magazine Spring 2017 It’s like traveling back in time, to when people first congregated in cities. They had tools but not machines. I go to get a key cut and a man files it by hand. Using only his eye to measure, he squints and holds up the original key for comparison. Of course India has ma- chines. India has computers and atomic power. But in Calcutta the modern is so diluted by the ancient, and the familiar by the strange, it can feel like another planet. Indians and Westerners tend to regard things differently. I remember riding on a bus between Varanasi and Patna, and we ran out of gas. Pulling to the side of the road, the driver asked us all to disembark and wait for another bus. A passenger from New York, the only other foreigner onboard, asked what the problem was. The driver simply said, “Petrol finished, Baba.” The New Yorker was incredulous, “You mean we’re out of gas?” The driver again wagged his head and simply said, “Petrol finished.” The American just couldn’t understand. “How long have you had this job?” he demanded. “I have driven the Varanasi - Patna route for fifteen years.” the driver smiled proudly. “And how often do you do it?” queried the Yank. “Two times every week,” responded the driver, his white teeth gleaming in his nut-brown face. “What?” Screamed the highly agitated passenger. “You drive this twice a week for fifteen years and you don’t know how much gas you need?” Now the Indian didn’t understand. He stood among the passengers in their saris, dhotis and lungis. Some with hands, feet or faces painted in henna, sandalwood or khol. He then looked at the American tourist, who seemed to him to have just descended from another world. With pitiful compassion and bemused incomprehension, the driver raised his upturned palms, “It is only time,” he said. Although India has been independent for a long time, British influence is apparent in a variety of ways. English dishes, including baked beans on toast, are menu staples at teashops, such as Flurry’s in Calcutta. At Christmastime, Kathleen’s Bakery turns out some of the best mincemeat pies the British Empire has ever known. Scores of imposing buildings and homes add to both the nobility and peculiarity of Calcutta’s atmosphere. Many create a sort of Mad Max environment of a devastated but once grand civilization inhabited now by modern primitives. The grass and plants are reclaiming walkways and verandahs, and the untouchables and street people, squatting in the corners, under the trees, beside the stoop, now seem rooted in these estates. This strange ambiance permeates life in Calcutta. I recall when the son of a Maharaja and his wife, a well-known novelist, who has had titles on the New York Times Best seller lists, invited Penelope and I out to the Bengal Club, a remnant of the Raj. The table was laid out with fine china, crystal and silver, yet my ex-wife noticed what she thought might be a rat scurrying about in the corner. She informed the novelist, who maintained her dignity as she called, “Bearer!” After the white-jacketed waiter left, three barefoot young men wearing lungis came out of the kitchen and busily shooed the creature from the room. The novelist turned to us and smiled calmly, “I believe it was a muskrat,” she said. While Calcutta is a city of gargantuan proportions it remains at heart a village. I remember once when my ex-wife and I had returned to Calcutta after an absence of nearly five years. Our first night back we went to dinner at a restaurant we used to frequent around the cor- ner on Gariahat Road. A waiter smiled at us and addressed Penleope, “Oh, you have been out of station long time, memsahib,” he said. While many may find Calcutta a cauldron of corruption, Mother Teresa, an Albanian Catholic in a Hindu land, said it was where she found God. It is a city that, like other large metropolises, can be bizarre and beautiful, frightening and friendly, majestic and modest, yet in its entirety and at its core, Calcutta is unique. There is no other place on earth like it. Not just in comparison to its imposing physical- ity and its multitudes, but in its bloodline, whose evolutionary path is woven from all aspects of the human heart into holy cloth. 84 Steel Notes Magazine